Mother Knows Best
Many people who had never heard of Mother Jones became aware of the magazine last year when it broke the story of Mitt Romney's "47 percent" speech. The magazine, a paragon of liberal thought now in its 37th year of publication, saw over 9 million page views for the story and video of Romney's comments at a political fundraiser, which became an election-year sensation. In a lesson on how Web traffic spikes can boost social media, the magazine gained 14,000 new Twitter followers and 12,000 new Facebook fans in the wake of the story.
Whatever your politics, it's hard not to admire the energy and influence of the plucky nonprofit, which, with offices in San Francisco, Washington D.C. and New York, produces six print issues a year, a website featuring 24/7 updated content, award-winning investigative journalism, mobile and digital editions, podcasts, a video series, influential blogs and an e-newsletter.
The print magazine reaches 240,000 subscribers and the website averages 4 million visitors a month, both numbers up sharply in recent years. Year-to-year website page views were up 28 percent in 2012, while mobile traffic doubled. Mother Jones saw total ad revenue increase 34 percent in 2012 compared to 2011, with digital ad revenue up 21 percent. Digital ads surpassed print as the primary revenue source in 2010.
CEO Madeleine Buckingham says this type of success tends to build on itself.
“It starts with size,” she says. “Now that we reach more than 4 million readers online each month … that in itself is a compelling reason to garner an advertiser’s interest. But that’s not enough. Our primary selling point to advertisers is the quality of our readership. Our readers are engaged, affluent and well educated. They also happen to care deeply about the environment, they vote, and are active in life and in their community.”
Quality readers are attracted to quality content. Mother Jones has invested heavily in recent years in editorial resources, including opening a Washington D.C. bureau in 2006 that has grown from two editors and reporters to 12.
“Full-time staff reporters give us the flexibility and firepower to participate both in the 24/7 news cycle and the ability to ‘go deep’ on team-based investigative packages,” Buckingham says. “… Journalism is always at the center of our thinking, and we aspire to be known as the leading source for high quality investigative journalism that’s independent, intelligent, passionate and creative.”
The magazine has won a case full of awards, including two National Magazine Awards (“Ellies”) for general excellence in 2008 and 2010, the 2012 Data Journalism Award and merit awards from the Society of Publication Designers. Its latest laurel is the Izzy Award, presented by the Park Center for Independent Media, honoring excellence in journalism "created outside traditional corporate structures."
Buckingham sees print and digital as playing distinct roles in the success of Mother Jones. In addition to being well-suited to long-form narrative and photojournalism, print, she says, "boosts our credibility and impact within the media, political and donor worlds, and distinguishes us from online-only publications." Print also generates a subscriber list which she describes as the nonprofit's greatest business asset.
Digital, on the other hand, is all about engagement. Being inserted into the 24/7 news cycle and social media conversation, Mother Jones can reach audiences in unprecedented ways and "develop internal tools that foster smart choices about which technologies serve Mother Jones and our audiences best," Buckingham says.
Right now, Twitter is proving the magazine's most effective social media tool (though reporters and editors are also active on Facebook). Reporting on the ground in Louisiana after the BP oil spill, Mother Jones reporters sent out live updates to thousands of followers, and in return, were offered boat rides and places to stay, as well as tips and new story angles.
"You are in a dialogue with those readers," says co-Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery. "We get a lot of direct feedback." Social media followers also "sort of become your ambassadors in the world."
Building New Business
Back in 2006, when Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein took over as co-editors-in-chief, Mother Jones was, Jeffery recalls, "a feisty bi-monthly magazine with a very small digital shadow."
"The first thing we did was tear down the walls between print and digital operations," she says. New investment in editorial—helped by a capital campaign—allowed for hiring of more full-time reporters and less reliance on freelancers. New digital investments, including a full site redesign built on the Drupal open-source platform, allowed Mother Jones to match content to its best distribution form, whether print, Web, blog, video or audio. "It used to be that articles would be published in the magazine and maybe find a way into the website," Jeffery says. "But now we think, 'What's the best way to tell a story?'"
Cross-platform thinking has altered Mother Jones' conception of itself. As Buckingham puts it, "We've successfully pivoted from magazine and freelance-dominated, to 24/7 and staff driven; from an emphasis on a polished, final product to a publication style that's iterative and social, without sacrificing our commitment to quality. We're also making good progress toward integrating visual storytelling elements into our reporting."
In addition to building out resources for print, the Web and mobile platforms, Mother Jones has sought partnerships with fellow news providers to increase breadth of coverage and build a bigger digital footprint. The Climate Desk partners Mother Jones with seven other news organizations—The Atlantic, The Guardian, Slate.com, Wired, PBS's "Need to Know," the Center for Investigative Reporting and Grist.org—to bring comprehensive reporting in print and digital on issues related to climate change. Original content is produced weekly and shared with all partners for distribution. With the addition of The Guardian to the network in late 2011, the Climate Desk now has a potential global audience of over 70 million, Buckingham says.
To expand further the reach of its coverage, Mother Jones runs the Climate Desk Live briefing series—a series of video profiles of important figures and issues in climate change—and is looking to establish new distribution and media partner relationships, as well as expand into social media platforms like Reddit, Pinterest and Socialcam.
When it comes to building audiences, though, there's nothing quite like a well-timed viral smash. In addition to the social media boost enjoyed by Mother Jones after the "47 percent" story, the magazine saw a spike in print and e-newsletter subscriptions in September 2012—up 400 percent and 300 percent, respectively—compared to September 2011. September was also the best month ever for online low-dollar donations to the Foundation For National Progress, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that publishes Mother Jones, and over all, the digital fundraising program saw a 53 percent increase in donations in FY2012 compared to 2011.
Despite its impact, the magazine does not see the Romney scoop as an isolated fluke. "I think it's fair to say that some time ago we could not have broken a story like this in this way," Monika Bauerlein said in a Mother Jones-produced video. " … [W]e wouldn't have had the reporting staff in place, but just as importantly, we wouldn't have had the distribution capability in place. We made a strategic decision to really become a player in the news cycle."
Buckingham sees the "47 percent" story in the context of a year in which in-depth investigative reporting of everything from the election to the Occupy movement to the Trayvon Martin killing put Mother Jones firmly on the national radar.
"[O]ur success in 2012 was not simply a function of the "47% windfall," Buckingham says. "We did indeed catch lightning in a bottle back in September. But, by way of comparison, in December 2012, we also saw the second-best single-month [donation] total in our history."
How to Top a Big Year
Looking ahead, Mother Jones hopes to build on what has been accomplished in the last five years. Doing this requires looking beyond tools and platforms, Buckingham says. "It's about having the time, expertise, and opportunity to become more agile and lower the costs of failure," she says. "It is about further encouraging a culture of smart innovation that tests, experiments, evaluates, and then does it again."
Understanding demographic shifts and anticipating where and how audiences will grow—as well as what their concerns will be and how best to serve them—is also important. Key to this effort, she says, is "a more nuanced understanding of how smart engagement with Mother Jones' community of support is important—not just for periodic editorial sourcing but potentially even more so for revenue growth and reputation building."
It also takes continued investment. "We hope to hire more reporters and editors and other people, be they Web developers or interactive and video folks, to further our ability to tell stories in interesting ways," Jeffery says.
"There is a challenge to keep up with [the competition]," she says. "One media critic said we consistently punch above our weight, and that, I think, is the place that we like to be—but we'd like to move up in the weight class." PE